My barmy relations ... and that photograph of the naked Kate Moss

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Years ago, before I became the soigne commentator you see before you, I used to write for a gossip column in a London paper. One of the traditions of the gossip's afternoon was what became known as the Shop Your Granny Hour - namely, the hour before the deadline when, desperate for some shocking revelations with which to stun the reader, one would reveal without a qualm some gross indiscretion about a close relative, no matter what the cost to one's morals or one's chances of receiving a legacy. Of course, shopping your granny was the purest hyperbole, since none of our ancient ancestors did anything remotely interesting - few of them went to fashionable nightclubs on the arm of Rufus Sewell, and hardly any of them had affairs with the Foreign Secretary. It was just a figure of speech. But now of course it's got serious. For the past few weeks, a repellent advertisement has been heard on commercial radio, cooingly encouraging you to bring out your barmy relations.

"Memory loss? Confusion? Periodic forgetfulness?" it runs (I paraphrase, but not much). "If you know of a loved one who suffers from any of these, why not put their name forward to take part in clinical trials. You could even find yourself remunerated for inconvenience. Candidates must be over 50 to take part ..."

Am I alone in finding this approach a little insensitive? "Candidates must be over ..." is a formulation usually employed when telling members of the public how to get on to Blind Date, not how to become guinea pigs in some rebarbative clinical inspection. The detail about being "remunerated" may sound inoffensive, but it introduces a note of commercialisation that is nothing short of shocking. Why don't they just come clean and say: "Cash prizes for befuddled relatives. Is your grandma going mad? Is your old nan in the throes of Alzheimer's? Then turn her befogged state into hard cash. Why not bung her round here to our draughty rooms, leave her to our tender mercies for a few hours and pick up pounds pounds pounds ..."?

Incensed, I rang the number they gave, spoke to a kindly Irish lady and said I was concerned about a "loved one" - her forgetfulness, her conversational breakdowns, her insipid diet, her lack of interest in the fortunes of Tranmere Rovers, etc. The woman asked for my number and said "a doctor or nurse" would ring me back. A likely story. There I sat through the long afternoon, waiting for the phone to ring, as the light began to fade. There I sat, as my head gradually cleared of urgent journalistic thoughts, to be replaced by snatches of old songs, faded sepia memories, blurred images of faces I once knew ... Oh, for God's sake. I pulled myself together and exasperatedly rang the number a second time. "Yes?" asked a voice. "I'm ringing about a Loved One. My name is Wal ..." "You've already rung us," said the Irish lady with a hint of asperity. "You're not suffering from memory loss, are you?"

I don't care what a few million ignorant Yanks think. The Duchess of York is fine by me. I for one have no intention of giving up reading her Diary, as syndicated in a (regrettably dwindling) number of north American papers. Anyone who fails to be riveted by the news that young Beatrice (or is it Eugenie?) is in the habit of killing and eating insects, and is therefore about to turn into Jeffrey Dahmer, has no nose for important news. Anyone who doesn't warm to the Duchess's instinctive clutching at the wrong word (Upper Silesia is "a modern facsimile of hell"; "I am dealing with my debts in a respectful way," she told critics - should that be "respectable"?; "The stone walls of Buckingham Palace are mortared in mystique" - should that be "brick walls"? Come to think of it, should that be "Mustique"?) must themselves have a heart of stone. But amid all the carping over her gradual transformation into a one-woman merchandising empire, just remember this. According to the marketing manager of the New York Times (who signed the syndication contract with her), she is "a mythic figure whose words are greatly anticipated among newspaper readers in the Persian Gulf".

Imagine. Just as Mrs Albright is darting round the Middle East, coordinating support for colossal air strikes, just as half of Kuwait is poised to migrate en masse to Saudi Arabia, just as you think the whole Iraqi population would be scanning the foreign pages with mild trepidation, what are they all secretly reading? "We believe in each other, Andrew and I. Isn't that what friendship is all about?"

Have you got a copy of last week's Independent Saturday Magazine handy? You'll need it for this story. The phone rang on Tuesday in the ISM offices (which are, as you can imagine, hugely palatial and awe-inspiring, somewhere between the Pentagon and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon). "It's about the feature on Yves St Laurent," said a male voice, with that slight quaver of lubriciousness that betokens the smut connoisseur. Oh yes, said the Deputy Editor, wearily, a fine piece of writing ... "It's about the photographs," said the voice. Mm-hmm, said the Deputy Editor. He'd been expecting a few calls. Even in 1998, you cannot publish pictures of gratuitously naked, and spectacularly tangerine-hued breasts (which may or may not be Kate Moss's) without attracting a few, as it were, knockers. "I refer you to the photograph on page 35," continued the voice, "as I have a special interest in it". As readers may recall, page 35 featured a curious mise-en-scene of a nervous-looking football hooligan in a beige raincoat, standing beside a white sofa and failing to notice a young woman standing in front of him clad only in pink stiletto sandals.

"If you're wondering about the naked woman," said the Deputy Editor pre- emptively, "I don't actually think it is Kate Moss".

"I wasn't ringing about that."

"If it's a copyright matter," said the Deputy Editor, "I'll have to refer you to St Laurent's Paris office".

"I wasn't ringing about that." "If you're inquiring about the pink stilettos," said the Deputy Editor, "they're pounds 195 ..."

"Actually, it's the electrical fittings and the blue cables," said the voice. "You can just see them at the extreme edges of the shot." The Deputy Editor removed the phone from his ear and looked at it for a few minutes. "I work for the company that makes them," the voice continued relentlessly. "And I just wondered if I could have a copy of the picture for my files". He giggled. "You must think I'm a real pervert ..."

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